Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Good Writing (and Life) Advice from Ann Patchett

When I first read the introduction to Ann Patchett's collection of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, I worried that I wouldn't like it.  They seemed eclectic; I thought the subject matter might not appeal.  How silly I was!

I decided that I'd at least read the essays about being a writer, but I ended up reading straight through.  However, the essay "The Getaway Car," is so delightful that I have to record some quotes from it.

It tells the story of how Patchett came to be a writer, and it's full of great advice.  I think this chunk may be my favorite:  "Forgiveness.  The ability to forgive oneself.  Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.  . . . I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers.  Forgiveness, therefore, is key.  I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing.  Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself" (p. 29-30).

Along the way she talks about her mentors, especially her undergraduate professors, and what they taught her.  I love her picture of Grace Paley, who more often than not cancelled class when she had to go protest human rights violations in Chile, and along the way taught her students how to live authentic lives:  "She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized.  You don't step out of the stream of your life to do your work.  Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person" (p. 31-32).

She advises against going into debt for an M.F.A. program.  She also advises us to be practical when we consider shorter summer programs.  Do it to have fun, do it to learn, do it to make writer friends, but don't do it (the M.F.A., the summer program) thinking that you'll meet your agent and get a great book contract.  She's blunt about those chances:  "I imagine that every now and then a book is picked up by a prestigious New York agent and sold to a prestigious New York publisher, but it is statistically akin to finding a four-leaf clover.  On the banks of the Dead Sea.  In July" (p. 38).

She has great ideas for where to get inspiration.  She says, "If I'm really stuck, nothing helps like looking through a book of photography.  Open it up, look at a picture, make up a story" (p. 40).

She's written everything:  poems, short stories, magazine pieces, and novels.  About novel writing, she says, "Novel writing, I soon discovered, is like channel swimming:  a slow and steady stroke over a long distance in a cold, dark sea.  If I thought too much about how far I'd come or the distance I still had to cover, I'd sink" (p. 45).

This last piece of advice seems to apply in many situations, not just writing:  "One more thing to think about when putting a novel together:  make it hard.  Set your sights on something that you aren't quite capable of doing, whether artistically, emotionally, or intellectually.  You can also go for broke and take on all three" (p. 50).

Truth be told, I found it difficult to narrow down the quotes.  The whole essay is so wonderful--as is the rest of the book.  The essay about her grandmother's descent into Alzheimer's manages to be heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time.  And her narrative about how she came to own a bookstore answers key questions for me:  it's likely not an alternative career path for me, as I don't have a partner who wants to devote all his/her waking hours to the store, and I don't have lots of disposable income or a small fortune that I can plow into the store.

This book is easily one of the best books of essays that I've read in a long time, and this book may end up being on my list of favorites that I've read in 2014.  Do yourself a favor and pick it up.  The nice thing about a book of essays is that you can always read just one--but Patchett's writing is so compelling, you'll probably devour the whole thing.

No comments: